Celebrating A Designer, A Friendship, A Legacy: Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn

A retrospective of the special friendship and unique collaboration between Hubert de Givenchy, who passed away over the weekend at age 91, and Audrey Hepburn in the way I know best: talking about movies.
Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, 1961

“His design, his thought centered and focused on her [Audrey’s] physical being. It’s like a great composer when he writes for a great artist. She was the physical expression of what Givenchy did,” said Stanley Donen, who directed Hepburn in Funny Face (1957) and Charade (1963).

There have been quite a few remarkable actor-director partnerships in the history of cinema, but Audrey Hepburn’s most symbiotic screen collaboration was with fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, whose creative mind and understanding of Audrey’s figure, needs and personality played a key role in defining her singular style on-and-off screen. She was a beacon of style. And I don’t think there is any other actress whose roles have emulated her personal style to such extent as in the case of Audrey Hepburn. From the moment Hepburn and Givenchy met, the actress’ personal style was inextricably linked to the designer for the rest of her life, and, after Sabrina (1954), their first film together, Audrey requested Givenchy to design for all her films (they eventually worked together on eight films – the most important five of which I am talking about today). “His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier; he is a creator of personality.” This could explain why Givenchy had such a successful contribution to cinema, unlike many other fashion designers.
Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

Audrey Hepburn, “Sabrina”, 1954

Sabrina, directed by Billy Wilder, marked the beginning of the beautiful friendship between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. She wanted to wear a real Paris dress in Sabrina. Audrey Hepburn had a style that was very much her own, knowing exactly what complimented her slender figure, and insisted that she selected her own clothes for the film. She was sent to see Cristóbal Balenciaga in Paris, but he was too busy preparing his latest collection, so he sent Audrey to his good friend, Hubert de Givenchy, who had worked for Balenciaga. It turned out that Givenchy couldn’t design something especially for her either, as he was in the middle of a collection himself, so Audrey asked him to show her his previous collection.

It was exactly what she needed and she ended up buying a capsule wardrobe, formed of three outfits, that would mark her transformation from a shy waif into a sophisticated Parisienne in the film: a collarless Oxford-gray wool tailleur and two gowns, the white organdy bustier dress with navy floral embroidery (a design which directed the attention to Hepburn’s narrow waist and slim upper torso) and the bateau neckline black cocktail dress. All the other costumes were designed by Edith Head, who won the Oscar for costume design, without crediting Givenchy’s significant contribution, but that’s a story for another time.
Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face

Audrey Hepburn, “Funny Face”, 1957

Funny Face (1957) is not among my favourite films with Audrey Hepburn, although I do acknowledge its importance in fashion – not just because of Givenchy’s beautiful gowns that are at the center of the film, but also because of Audrey’s beatnik style as book clerk Jo Stockton, and of the way the film, despite its seemingly ridiculous plot, is smarter than it first appears to be, revealing a Pygmalion story in the form of a parody about the fashion world. Audrey Hepburn’s clothes that she wears in Paris for the photo shoots were, once again, designed by Hubert de Givenchy, and watching the film is like taking a trip through the fashion history and French elegance of that time.

Not only that, but Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson, playing fashion photographer Dick Avery and fashion editor Maggie Prescott, respectively, are clearly a hint to Richard Avedon and Diana Vreeland, two of the most important figures in fashion history. The photos for the title sequence were produced by Avedon himself and many of the pictures Dick Avery takes in Paris remind of the famous photographer’s work, so watching the film did very much seem like flipping through a ’50s fashion magazine, one directed by Diana Vreeland herself.
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, 1961

Today it is hard to imagine anyone else as troubled call girl Holly Golightly, but Truman Capote, on whose novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was based, was disappointed when Audrey Hepburn was cast in the role. When Capote sold the rights to Paramount, he had envisioned Marilyn Monroe as Holly and believed that Hepburn was completely wrong for the part. Paula Strasberg, Monroe’s acting coach, felt that playing a call girl was not good for Marilyn’s image, and the actress dropped out of production. For Audrey, on the other hand, was a welcome change after her princess and chauffeur’s daughter parts she had played in the past, even though Holly Golightly’s character was softened for the screenplay. But Breakfast at Tiffany’s was still a very modern film for 1961, and Hepburn was funny, yet moving in her role.

“I should be a stylish Holly Golightly. Even if that’s all I can contribute”, modestly said Audrey. She and Hubert de Givenchy teamed up again for Blake Edward’s romantic comedy. Her wardrobe is simple, elegant, iconic, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the movie that, in 1961, consecrated the black sheath dress, heralding a new era for women’s dresses, a more relaxed, freeing, modern style. The couturier designed two sleeveless black dresses for the film. From the very opening scene, when Holly stepped out of a yellow cab on a deserted Fifth Avenue, outside Tiffany’s, at that time of morning when the dawn had broken, wearing the black column gown with an open back and the Tiffany necklace of draped pearls, Audrey Hepburn made movie fashion history.

The other black dress is a knee-length cocktail dress with a slightly flared frilly skirt. But there are other Givenchy designs that are at least just as note-worthy: the fabulous lampshade hat, the pink cocktail dress and the double-breasted orange wool coat that was much copied after the release of the film. The funnel neck coat was classic Givenchy and Audrey would wear similar versions in Charade (1963), How to Steal A Million (1966), and in her personal wardrobe.
Audrey Hepburn Cary Grant Charade

Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, “Charade”, 1963

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn together on screen. It’s hard to escape them. Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) is one of the last great Old Hollywood entertainments and none other than Grant and Hepburn could better portray that idealised sort of perfection. It doesn’t hurt either that this skillful blend of adventure, suspense and style is set against the timeless Paris.

Givenchy dressed Hepburn in contemporary styles very evocative of the era, including a selection of high-buttoned jackets, coats and raincoats (Audrey favoured dress cuts that masked her collarbone), pencil skirts and shift dresses in colours of mustard, cream, red and black often cinched with a large belt to accentuate her petit frame. The image of Hepburn in a red suit and white pillbox hat walking the banks of the Seine with Cary Grant has become of one the film’s most enduring images.
Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal A Million

Audrey Hepburn, “How to Steal A Million”, 1966

Few actresses had as much influence on the fashion of the 1950s and 1960s as Audrey Hepburn. Richard Avedon was one of the people who advised her to emphasize and not hide her qualities and distinctive traits like her body, a new, modern model of femininity opposed to the shapely sexiness in vogue at Hollywood at the time, her eye-makeup created by the Italian Alberto De Rossi, thick eyebrows and her natural brown hair, cut short.

In How to Steal A Million (1966), as Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of a master art forger, Audrey plays alongside Peter O’Toole, another great match for Audrey’s style, just as Cary Grant had been in Charade. In William Wyler’s How to Steal A Million, Audrey’s Givenchy wardrobe is maybe even more representative of the designer’s signature minimal fashion than in other films like Sabrina or Funny Face – a sophisticated, but very clean, essential, practical form of high fashion. It is the best reflection of the perfect synergy between Givenchy’s elegant lines and Audrey’s impeccable taste: it felt like they both designed the clothes. Memorable clothing pieces here would include the iconic white helmet, the unforgettable pink coat, the beige shift dress with sculpted front pockets, and the black lace eye mask.
photos: movie stills all captured by Classiq / “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Paramount Pictures) / “Sabrina” (Paramount Pictures) / “Funny Face” (Paramount Pictures) / Charade (Stanley Donen Films) / “How to Steal A Million” (World Wide Productions)

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